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Nancy Matson


The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events)
by Lemony Snicket

The word "standoffish" is a wonderful one, but it does not describe Count Olaf's behavior toward the children. It means "reluctant to associate with others," and it might describe somebody who, during a party, would stand in a corner and not talk to anyone. It would not describe somebody who provides one bed for three people to sleep in, forces them to do horrible chores, and strikes them across the face. There are many words for people like that, but "standoffish" is not one of them.
-From The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events)

How can you not be interested in a book which claims to have been written and narrated by someone with the unlikely name of Lemony Snicket, and who forewarns that the main characters will meet nothing but despair, despite their general niceness and pleasing countenances? Such is the case with A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning (book one of a series.) The miserable stars of this tale are the three Baudelaire children, 14-year-old Violet, 12-year-old Klaus, and baby sister Sunny.

Abruptly orphaned in chapter one, the children are taken in, as per their parents' will by Count Olaf, who is a terrible, terrible man (how could it be any other way with a name like that?). He allows them only a single bed between them, refers to them by the term 'orphans' instead of using their names, and forces them to chop wood that he has nowhere to burn. All the while, he and his strange theater troupe friends - the bald man, the man with hooks for hands, and the person who does not seem to be either a man or woman - help him scheme to steal the Baudelaire family fortune.

The fairy tale quality and creepy humor of the story will lead to inevitable Edward Gorey comparisons (which is why I'm just giving in here and making the comparison outright.) This is a tale aptly told, never faltering from its humorous tone, and able to maintain a number of running jokes which enrich the story. One running gag is that Baby Sunny's infantile outcries are always interpreted as realized thoughts. Sunnyıs warning cry of "Gack!" while the three children are on the beach, Snicket tells us, probably meant "Look at that mysterious figure emerging from the fog!" And, indeed, a moment after Sunny speaks a man is seen making his way over to the children. Another ongoing theme is Snicketıs use of odd phrases or words which he defines expansively. When he explains that most of the Baudelairesı friends have Œfallen by the waysideı he goes on to say that here that means "they stopped calling, writing, and stopping by to see any of the Baudelaires, making them very lonely."

This book is a real page-turner, and kids (8 to 12 is the suggested age range) will keep reading to find out how the Baudelaires use their wits, and the resources of a private library next door, to defeat the terrible Olaf. The book's self-awareness of its genre will allow both kids who like fairy tales and those who think they're too sophisticated for them to enjoy Snicket's work. Once they're hooked, there are are more books to follow - The Reptile Room (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 2) is now available, and The Wide Window, the third book, will be published early next year.

While these books are not fantasy, their magical quality will appeal to fans of that genre. Because this series is so clever and well done, parents may find themselves eagerly consuming the series right along with their children, a la Harry Potter.

Age range: 8 years old and up
Keywords: fairy tale, orphans
Publishing info: Copyright 1999 Harper Trophy.